Leave Mind Reading to the Mentalists

When people of a certain age who haven’t spoken to each other in a while get together, oft-asked questions include “Are you retired yet?” and, if yes, “How do you keep busy?

When I recently had this conversation with a long-lost high school buddy, my answer, after yes, was that my time is pretty fully occupied. I spend it not only enjoying grandchildren, reading the Times and doing its crossword puzzle, walking my daily 10,000 steps while audiobook “reading,” and studying Torah, all of which I’ve written about previously, but also visiting doctors (our AARP supplemental Medicare coverage was a wise investment even though my wife and I are both in relatively good health, thank God pooh-pooh); taking care of house maintenance projects (the number of our pending fix-it jobs gives our doctor visits a good run for their money); providing community service (to both my shul and Teaneck); following social media and streaming services (which I foolishly allow to take up too much time); and traveling (once our covid-imposed hiatus ends, that is).

And, oh yes, writing this column.

It just eats up the hours. I start with thinking what to write about, often while walking to and from shul on Shabbat when I can’t listen to audiobooks. After considering and eliminating ideas, I finally (whew) hit on something that grabs my interest, is substantive enough to fill a column, and allows me to make a point beyond the strict boundaries of the topic. Then I begin writing in my mind to get a sense of whether it works.

If it does, I turn to the more time-consuming task — moving it from my head to paper (oops, computer screen). And now that I’ve been a columnist for more than six years, I realize that this part of the process is truly a continuation of what I did as a lawyer for somewhat less than half a century. In 2022 I’m writing a regular column about, well, about whatever interests me (and, I hope, my readers); as a lawyer I was writing briefs, affidavits, pleadings, correspondence, memoranda, and, eventually, contracts and leases. But though the substance is quite different, there are significant aspects of overlap.

The first similarity is time; that is, my writing has always been time-intensive because doing it right is much more than merely putting words, sentences, and paragraphs together into some coherent whole. Rather, it’s doing so in an engaging, articulate, thoughtful, and hopefully convincing way, which requires time; time to think and draft, redraft and write, rewrite and delete. The next step? Like the instructions on a shampoo bottle direct — repeat.

Not done yet. It’s wise to put the last not-quite-ready draft aside, sleep on it for a night or two, and then return to the rewriting process. Only afterward will it be ready for necessary editing and tweaking, and having another set of eyes review the (almost) final product. And that often leads to more rewriting, editing, and — well, you get the point.

It was common when I was a lawyer and a brief was in final form and ready to be served just before deadline, that a partner would ask for one more quick read, often resulting in some small edit — perhaps a changed word or two or even just some added or deleted commas. Making such changes with word processing is quick and easy, but in my early years as a lawyer, with stenographers banging away on electric typewriters, it often meant entire pages had to be manually retyped, with the messenger cooling his heels as the clock ticked down.

Associates often questioned whether this was really necessary. While we all knew that there was no possibility that these edits would have any impact on the decision, we also strongly doubted that the judge would even notice them.

I finally realized, though, that it’s not only about impact or notice; it’s also about excellence. Writers strive for excellence because they care deeply about their work. It says something important about them; it’s a reflection of what they think and how they feel. They’re proud of their work and want it to be as clear and sharp — and excellent — as they can make it. For their readers, of course, but equally critical, for themselves.

There’s more. If you don’t always strive for excellence — even at 11:50 p.m. before a midnight deadline — then you might not do so even the day before deadline. If you don’t care about a missing comma or a poor word choice, that inattention might morph into sloppy reasoning, poorly chosen case precedent, or muddled and unclear segues and conclusions. If you drop your standard of excellence when there are only minutes to fix errors, you might ignore them even when you have hours to spare. The added comma may not itself have impact, but the idea behind it — striving for excellence — does.

And there’s still more, which brings me to my second point of similarity. Writers are aware that they rarely write in a vacuum; most often they write to be read. As a lawyer, my readers were judges. Now, they’re subscribers to the Jewish Standard and readers of the Times of Israel, and, like judges, they need to understand what I mean. My understanding the point I’m making is worthless if they don’t. And the more I strive for excellence, the greater chance there is that I’ll achieve that understanding.

This jumped out at me recently while reading a Facebook thread. The poster, a well-known thinker and writer, was arguing with a commenter about whether the poster hated Israel. I agreed with both. That is, while I believed the poster’s statement that he loved Israel, I too had the impression from reading his numerous posts that he felt no such love.

I therefore also agreed that the poster was misunderstood, though I blamed him for that misunderstanding rather than blaming his readers, as he did. I’m sure he knew his true feelings and thoughts. But he didn’t express them clearly enough to his readers, whose job is to read his posts and his articles, not his mind.

Over my legal career, many judges (even one was too many) rejected my arguments even though they understood them, because they decided my adversaries’ were better. Fair enough. Sometimes, though, they simply missed my point completely. On almost all those occasions (an unusually dense judge or two notwithstanding), it was my fault. My reasoning was fuzzy; my argumentation sloppy; my word choice imprecise. I failed to connect all the dots and fully explain all the therefores. In those few cases I, like the FB poster, wanted the judges to read my mind while they were actually reading my briefs.

That’s why a second or more set of eyes is so important — and these columns get seven such sets. And when those readers tell me, as they sometimes do, that I wrote something that I don’t think I wrote, I often bristle — initially, that is. But when I reread what I wrote I usually realize that the error was mine; something went amiss on the road between my brain and my computer keyboard. I therefore most often rewrite until we’re all finally comfortable that what I mean is clearly reflected on the page. Not that we all need to agree about substance of course, because I can easily live with disagreement. But not with being misunderstood.

This extends beyond lawyers and columnists. It applies to teachers in classrooms, rabbis from pulpits, spouses in bedrooms, friends on email, employers and employees in the workplace — indeed, to all verbal communication. Clarity and understanding are critical. Leave mind-reading to the Amazing Kreskin and Randi. God gave us words, and when we choose them wisely, use them carefully, and apply them clearly, we transform this Divine gift into a human treasure.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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